by Bruce Edwards, Vermont Business Magazine Newport isn’t looking in the rear-view mirror, at least not any more. Two years ago the city was blindsided when two projects key to the city’s economic development efforts collapsed under the weight of the EB-5 debacle. But that was yesterday. Today, Newport is forging ahead taking the future into its own hands. Key to the revitalization plan is a project that would connect the downtown with the waterfront along the shores of Lake Memphremagog.
Last year, the city received state planning grants to hire a consultant which set the wheels in motion to develop a downtown master plan, said City Manager Laura Dolgin.
The five-phase plan has the waterfront project as the city’s top priority with revitalization of Main Street as its second priority, Dolgin said.
“So now that we have this sort of playbook we’re working with the Downtown Designation and the Northern Communities Investment Corp,” she said.
Dolgin said the partnership with Northern Communities Investment Corp will give the city the ability “to start moving toward implementation and making some of these improvements, what we call low-lying fruit.”
She said some of that initial work could begin as early as next summer.
“Some of it is just aligning intersections so it’s more walkable and safer but for us that’s a really big deal because in a municipality sometimes things are like a slow turning steam engine,” she said.
When the Agency of Commerce and Community Development renewed Newport’s Downtown Designation earlier this year, the agency noted key components of the city’s revitalization plan:
1. The Waterfront and Downtown Master Plan is underway to identify better connections and access to the waterfront from the downtown along with other improvements and economic opportunities.
2. A market and hotel feasibility study offers recommendations on developments in the downtown, including the large vacant area in the heart of the downtown formerly known as the Renaissance Block.
The Renaissance Block was one of two EB-5 visa/foreign investor projects in Newport that collapsed. The other was a bio-tech facility on the edge of the downtown).
3. Capital improvement plan for upgrades to Gardner Park, pedestrian improvements to the downtown, expansion of the waterfront recreation path connecting to the Canadian trail system and other gateway improvements.
4. Collaborating with the Vermont Land Trust on connecting the 129-acre Bluffside Farm on Lake Memphremagog to Prouty Beach, a key link for the trail system from the north to downtown. (The ACCD noted that the Vermont Land Trust received a $425,000 Northern Boarders Regional Commission grant through the agency to support construction of the trail).
Dolgin said the owner of retail property on the waterfront is eager to help the city, which owns the public dock.
There is state-owned land as well. She said the state has been “very cooperative” in looking at ways “to develop that area towards more entrepreneurial investment.”
To distance itself from the negative connotation associated with the Renaissance Block, Dolgin said the city is now calling it the Main Street Development Block project.
Like the Jay Peak and Burke Mountain resort properties, which fell victim to the EB-5 scam, Dolgin said the Main Street property also remains in the hands of the court-appointed receiver.
“Right now he (receiver) still owns it, the taxes are paid and hopefully we’ll see some movement with that shortly,” she said.